Human behavior theories and how they are applied in social work
Social work was developed when modern societies and charitable organizations aimed to help those less fortunate. To understand how human behavior therapies are applied in social work, it is important to understand the history of this field.
Caring for society’s less fortunate became important after events such as the Great Depression, which made apparent the need for a structured social work system. 1960’s activism later revolutionized caring for society when a host of social service organizations and social workers went into communities to help residents. This was also a time when many behavioral theories arose, some of which answered the issues that people of this era faced.
As society’s issues evolved, so did the available social programs for residents, many based on the theories in this article. Eight years into the millennia, the social work field expanded to include unemployment benefits, education, and universal healthcare. Today, social workers appear in just about every industry to help the individual and society as whole and are also expanding into private businesses as agents that contribute to positive work culture.
Furthermore, those in higher education have realized that preparing social workers for the challenges of an individual is an important part of helping society as a whole. programs around the country that focus on providing students with coursework covering behavior and the practical experience needed to work with diverse communities proliferate. Today, students can enroll in coursework in online masters of social work degree programs that prepare them for the field and cover important topics.
The human behavioral theories used in social work
Students who enter social work programs not only learn about the practical part of entering communities and helping people, but also learn about the applicable behavioral theories that influence human motivations. Below are a few of the theories social workers use while helping individuals and communities.
- Structural systems
These theories focus on observing individuals and their behavior within a particular system, operating under the assumption that people do not exist in isolation. Ecological Systems Theory, Family Systems Theory, and Contingency Theory are the three predominant structural systems behavioral theories.
- Ecological Systems Theory
This theory emphasizes observing people in more than one type of environment (or system) to understand their behavior. Microsystems (small, immediate environment), mesosystem (interactions between microsystems), exosystem (indirect environment), macrosystem (society’s values, norms, or beliefs), and chronosystem (significant changes that impact a person’s development over time) are various structural systems through which a client might interact with others.
For example, social workers look at children in microsystems to see how they interact with family members, peers, and caregivers. These relationships are usually bi-directional as the way a parent treats a child is reciprocated. By observing the child’s mesosystem, social workers see how the child interacts with people outside the family, for instance, teachers.
- Family Systems Theory
This theory traces a person’s personality, emotions, and behaviors back to family interactions. Moreover, the family unit plays a formative role in human development. Social workers might use this theory to work with parents to establish appropriate boundaries.
- Contingency Theory
This theory explains human behavior in terms of its dependence on situational factors. This theory helps social workers gain insight into the many different factors that can influence human behavior.
- Behaviorism and social learning theories
Outside of structural systems theories, behaviorism and social learning theories help explain human behavior. Ideas presented in behaviorism and social learning focus on the things that drive human behavior. These two theories also provide social workers with a framework for helping clients.
- Cognitive Theory
This theory examines a person’s thought process in determining what motivates them to act. With a focus on addressing dysfunctional thought patterns, social workers help clients understand these thoughts and how they appear before and after an event. Social workers assist their clients by helping them replace negative thought patterns with ones that are positive through interventions.
- Social Learning Theory
This theory was popularized through Albert Bandura’s work with the Bobo dolls. During the study, children watched videos of adults beating a bobo doll. Later that day, during playtime, the children received a bobo doll that they, too, beat, imitating the actions of the adults they observed earlier. This study formed the basis of social learning theory explaining how people observe behaviors before they imitate them.
- Behaviorism/Behavioral Theory
Ivan Pavlov’s salivating dogs formed the basis of understanding that much of human behavior is based on conditioning. The experiment involved the researcher triggering dogs’ tongues to drool upon the sound of a metronome. The dogs associated the sound of the metronome with the appearance of food. Social workers use this theory to explain how humans respond to stimuli simply because a stimulus trains them. An example of how this theory manifests is when a child earns good grades because they know they will receive a reward.
- Psychoanalytic theories
Social work theories that focus on human behavior also include the various psychoanalytic theories, which have their basis in the work of Freud on the id, ego, and superego. These theories explain human behavior in terms of the impulses that humans act on.
- Drive Theory
This theory looks at the innate drives that cause humans to seek gratification. Social workers help clients using this theory by focusing on how their innate actions are a response to suppressed socially unacceptable actions. It seeks to look at how these actions cause people to form habits.
- Self-Psychology Theory
This theory states that humans have specific developmental needs that, if not met, might present in adulthood as negative behaviors. For example, being overly dependent on others due to an inability to regulate self-esteem. A social worker might help a client by focusing on the client’s earlier occurrences in childhood to see how they impact behaviors as an adult.
The above are just a few of the many different behavior theories that social workers use in helping their clients. These theories provide social work professionals with a framework to understand their clients and help provide interventions to modify or completely change how clients deal with the various issues that challenge them. These theories are also the foundation of helping others learn to live their best lives.